Spring Passions Run High with Two Sublime Frederick Ashton Ballets

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Ravel: Daphnis and Chloë; Messager: The Two Pigeons: Artists of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, David Bintley (director),  Royal Ballet Sinfonia/ Koen Kessels (conductor) Birmingham Hippodrome, 2.3.2012 (GR)

Daphnis and Chloë:
Principal Characters/Dancers:
Chloë:  Elisha Willis
Daphnis:  Iain Mackay
Lykanion:  Ambra Vallo
Dorkon:  Mathew Lawrence
Bryaxis:  Tzu-Chao Chou
Pan:  Tom Rogers

Choreography:  Frederick Ashton
Design:  John Craxton
Lighting:  Peter Teigen

The Two Pigeons:
Principal Characters/Dancers:
The Young Girl:  Laëtitia Lo Sardo
The Young Man:  Joseph Caley
A Gypsy Girl:  Angela Paul
Her Lover:  Tom Rogers

Choreography:  Frederick Ashton
Design:  Jacques Dupont
Lighting:  Mark Jonathan

Birmingham Royal Ballet’s inspired coupling of ballets continued with Spring Passions at the Birmingham Hippodrome on March 2nd 2012 and reinforced the hint of spring’s arrival around the West Midlands. Both were established favourites from choreography icon Frederick Ashton: Daphnis and Chloë and The Two Pigeons.

The stories of these two ballets are simple love stories with traditional happy endings, but this is where the similarity ends. While Daphnis and Chloë originated from the early Greek romance of Longus, The Two Pigeons used one of the fables of the 17th century French writer Jean de la Fontaine. But an even greater contrast is provided by the style and form of the two scores despite both composers being French and from the late 19th century fin de siecle era. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under conductor Koen Kessels illustrated this capturing the carefree moods of Andre Messager, frequently bringing a smile to the lips and a tapping of the foot; the brass section excelled during the Danse hongroises. However I found myself unable to listen to their version of the heavier symphonie choréographique of Maurice Ravel without reference to the sounds from a full orchestra in the nearby Symphony Hall – an unfair comparison but perhaps inevitable.

Both ballets bore the stamp of their choreographer, Frederick Ashton. But while the opening Daphnis and Chloë seemed rather dated and staid, that for The Two Pigeons remained fresh and appealing. This comparison was also applicable in my opinion for the sets.  John Craxton’s colours and designs for the Ravel were somewhat disappointing against the engaging imagination retained by those of Jacques Dupont for Messager. The Two Pigeons also had the added attraction of  live doves: the two who had their own brief fly-past in Act I, and the single one symbolic of true love flew during the reconciliation scene.

However both sets of BRB dancers for the two ballets were equally true to character and made up for any shortcomings. The pastoral lovers were two of my favourites: Elisha Willis acted the shepherdess Chloë, demure, waiflike and delicate, while Iain Mackay played the goat-herd Daphnis, bold, dashing and confident. When pitted against rival herdsman Dorkon (Matthew Lawrence) to earn a kiss from Chloe, Mackay won by leaps and bounds. But true love never ran smooth and the seduction powers of Ambra Vallo as Lykanion were distracting enough for the gang of pirates to steal Chloë away. Three nymphs then appeared in a vision to Daphnis; the ethereal Céline Gittens, Victoria Marr and Jenna Roberts moved as one, but surely the moment needed more novelty. And the image of Pan above his cave was distinctly lacklustre. As the pirates surrounded Chloë and began to dance the night away, Tzu-Chao Chou as their chief Bryaxis brought a spark to the celebrations. However Pan thwarted his designs and the baddies flew in terror from lofty local boy Tom Rogers. The haunting strains of Ravel’s Daybreak began the final scene; calm was restored to the Arcadian landscape, notable for the crescendo control of Kessels and the ensemble dancing of the BRB corps de ballet.

The Two Pigeons Ambra Vallo as the Young Girl and Chi Cao as the Young Man photo: Bill Cooper

The Two Pigeons began in an artist’s studio in Paris, although clearly a ground-floor apartment rather than the more conventional attic. Perhaps this was what made the portrait sitter Laëtitia Lo Sardo such a frustrating fidget for painter Joseph Caley. This exchange between the Young Girl and the Young Man was both amusing and absorbing: the brilliant Lo Sardo wanted to get up and dance while for her boyfriend Caley satisfaction for the moment was artistically motivated. The plot was based on the Edward Marsh translation of a fable by Jean de la Fontaine, that opens

There were two pigeons on a tree,
Who love each other tenderly,
One in his folly, tired of home,

Resolved in distant lands to roam

 In the Messager/Lanchbery/Ashton interpretation there were loads of avian motifs in the movements of the dancers. This was particularly prevalent when the group of friends and a neighbour (Callie Roberts) entered. At times you could almost hear the billing and cooing of lovers, observe their preening to attract a mate, strutting when indifferent to an advance, flapping their wings to accelerate a promenade, exaggerated pecking and chicken-type steps à la Norman Collier – all done without feathers. Distinctive in these metaphoric movements was Arancha Baselga. Despite the itchy feet of Lo Sardo, it was the bored Caley who stretched his wings becoming the pigeon that roamed, attracted by the apparently flamboyant lifestyle of a passing gypsy troupe. One of them (a sultry, pouting Angela Paul) believed the way to Caley’s heart was to become a model subject for his canvas. The similes continued when the abandoned Lo Sardo adopted a dying swan posture.

The true nature of the gypsies was illustrated in the next scene, filled with debauchery and menace. Too late the Young Man realised the error of his ways, triggered by the dove that landed on his shoulder. Contrite he returned to his studio, fulfilling the de la Fontaine lines ‘with dragging wing and sagging head, cursing his curiosity’. The ensuing pas de deux was ballet of the highest calibre, with Lo Sardo and Caley doing full justice to some typical Ashtonian manoeuvres, full of individual elegance, poise and agility; Caley’s reconciliatory gestures and display were sufficiently convincing to win back the initially reticent and wounded Lo Sardo.

BRB return to the Hippodrome on June 20th next with Far from the Madding Crowd, the Hardy novel given the Paul Reade/David Bintley treatment. This is closely followed by Summer Celebrations, a three-parter that will hopefully be as inspiring a combination as this passionate double bill.

Geoff Read